GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 19: Clinical support technician Douglas Condie extracts viruses from swab samples so that the genetic structure of a virus can be analysed and identified in the coronavirus testing laboratory at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, on February 19, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jane Barlow - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Omicron has been classed as a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation (Picture: Getty)

Two cases of the highly infectious Omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in the UK.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there would be targeted testing in the areas where the cases were found – in Brentwood, Essex and in Nottingham.

The infected individuals are now self-isolating, along with their households.

The two cases are both believed to be connected and linked to travel to southern Africa.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will ‘set out further measures’ during a Downing Street press conference later on Saturday.

‘This is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over,’ Mr Javid said.

‘If there’s one thing that everyone can be doing right now is, if they’re eligible, please take your vaccine when it’s your first shot, your second shot, or your booster jab. If you’re eligible, please take a vaccine.’

The Omicron strain – first detected in southern Africa – was labelled a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation yesterday.

WHO said early evidence showed it had a high chance of reinfection.

METRO GRAPHICS B.1.1.529, Omicron variant, formerly known as Botswana variant

The Omicron variant is believed to have a higher rate of re-infection

Mr Javid said four more countries are being added to the travel ‘red list’ from 4am on Sunday: Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.

South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were placed on the list earlier this week.

It means non-UK residents will be refused entry, and those who are permitted to return will be ordered to isolate in a Government-approved facility for 10 days at the cost of around £2,000.

‘It’s a deeply concerning new variant and we do need to learn more about it but the fact that we now have these two cases in the United Kingdom does mean we need to take further measures and that’s why I’ve set this out today,’ Mr Javid said.

He did not say whether Covid restrictions could be re-introduced ahead of Christmas in light of the discovery, instead stressing the importance of getting vaccinated.

But he warned: ‘We’ve been always very clear that we won’t hesitate to take further action if that is what is required.’

Omicron was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24.

It has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

More suspected cases were reported in Germany and the Czech Republic on Saturday.

South Africa says it is being ‘punished’ instead of applauded for discovering the variant.

The UK, EU and US have all banned travel to southern African countries as details of the spread emerged.

The variant’s swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals, even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.

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In just two weeks, Omicron has turned a period of low transmission in the country into one of rapid growth.

Numerous pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence.

The detection of the cases in the UK came after Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed optimism that existing jabs will be effective at protecting against serious disease caused by the new variant.

Sir Andrew said a new vaccine could be developed ‘very rapidly’ if required because they now have a ‘well-oiled’ process.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that most of the mutations in Omicron are in similar regions seen in other variants, adding: ‘That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

‘At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.

‘It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.’

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Professor Calum Semple, who advises the Government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), also offered some optimism by saying the current evidence is ‘it’s not causing more death’.

‘The problem this might present is it might evade some of the vaccines but it might not evade the boosters or the two proper doses,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

But some experts were more concerned and ministers were facing calls to go further to prevent a wave of the new variant arriving in Britain while a Delta surge is ongoing.

Professor John Edmunds, who also sits on Sage, warned that could create a ‘very, very, very difficult situation’ and said ‘all the data suggests’ it would be able to evade current immunity, telling BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: ‘Our fears are it would do so to a large extent.’

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